Live Through This

All About My Mother

At some point, I realized my mom and I had a strange relationship.

Illustration by Emma D.

I once asked God to ruin my life, because I thought I lived too normal of one. I wanted to become a saint and/or storyteller when I grew up, but my life was perfect. At Nativity Elementary School in Hollywood, Florida, the nuns said every saint and celebrity had lived in poverty and dealt with abuse before the Romans or Hollywood stoned them, transforming them into a holy martyr. Saint Dymphna’s father tried to rape her; Walt Disney’s father beat him with a hammer. Average children accomplish shit. So one day, on a drive home from school, passing houses tinier than my own, I closed my eyes and prayed: “Dear God, I want to become Saint Mitchell, the patron saint of Disney World and/or doggy stores. Make my life hell. Amen.”

I thought I needed that prayer. You see, my mother ran America’s second biggest privately owned puppy store. (This statistic comes from a dog food company that performed a puppy store census in 1999. I tried to check it for this essay, but the internet failed to document the last and probably only pet store census.) She confused love with money and supplied us with lots of it. Her children wore designer clothes, attended the best schools, and owned more toys than any other kid. We were living the American dream. We were as boring as they come, or so I thought.

Most of my early memories consist of my mother’s nipples. The moment she walked in the door from work, I ignored Blue’s Clues. I was old enough to run from our ugly, green leather couch and jump up and down, trying to reach her breast. “It was my way of connecting with my child,” she told my therapist during a group session years later. “It was organic!”

The breastfeeding was infamous, and nobody stopped it. They thought it was cute, funny, and my fault. My mom says she stopped nursing when I was three, but I remember it lasting a few years longer. For my birthday one year, Mom’s best friend/favorite dog breeder made me a cake in the shape of a boob, complete with a round nipple.

When I was in preschool, she announced she was pregnant with her first girl. She cried. After several miscarriages, she was finally pregnant again. She always wanted a girl. But I wanted my baby sister to die. I had seen Rugrats. I had seen Disney Channel original movies. I knew moms prefer the youngest child. Daydreaming during religion class, I thought about smothering my unborn sibling with a pillow. I wanted love and attention, and I knew she would hog the milk.

Mom rearranged our house for the new baby. As I remember it, my half brother, then 16, stopped coming home on weekends. When he returned, he argued with her. He screamed that she cared more about her new children and puppy empire than him. I loved listening to their fights. In retrospect maybe I found them to be saint-level messy.

But she finally gave birth to my sister in 1995. It was the height of the Clinton economy. Money poured into every household, and it seemed like every household bought a dog. Since Mom ran the business, she had to work every day. Like any five-year-old, I missed her. I have a memory of riding in the back of a car while she was feeding my baby sister and talking on the phone. I tried telling her about the new Disney movie I had just seen, but she just took her other breast out of her bra. I wanted to talk to her, but I interpreted this as fulfillment of the same longing. I latched onto her boob like old times. When I was six, she gave birth to my youngest brother, and our special relationship was finally done.

In second grade, I remember my mom being in and out of the hospital after collapsing from pain in her legs. She would return home in tears with a picture book that the doctors said would help her explain the diagnosis of the week to her kids. One picture book said she had cancer; another said she had lupus. After so many picture books, I began to wonder: Does she even have a problem?

A few months before my 10th birthday, Mom and Dad called my siblings and me into the bathroom. At first I thought they were going to read us another picture book about Mom’s diseases, but they sat on opposite sides of the marble sink. They asked us to sit on the floor. Looking down at us, Mom said, “Your father doesn’t hug me enough. We’re getting a divorce.”

My siblings and I went around in a circle asking them questions. Who divorces a man over hugs?

“We don’t even sleep in the same bed,” Dad pointed out.

“So?” I asked. (Watching internet porn since the third grade clearly taught me little about sex.)

“We’re done,” Mom said. “But it’s OK. Your friend’s parents are getting divorced too. It’ll be a group experience!”

We hugged Dad’s legs and cried into his Gap jeans. Mom watched us from the kitchen sink. “I pay for your education,” she said. Nobody heard her. She started to cry. “Dad doesn’t pay for things. Don’t any of you want to hug me?” Everyone ignored her. I wanted someone to apologize to me for making my life the opposite of 7th Heaven. But then, the divorce was my fault. I had asked God for it. Now all I wanted was God to take back everything I asked for.

***

Of course, the divorce wasn’t my fault. Mom didn’t mention that she already had a new source for hugs: Steve Number Two. (The first was my oldest brother’s father.) Unfortunately for Mom, Steve Number Two lived in Iowa. She married him anyway. Again, Mom had to live without hugs.

Her illnesses increased. She had a hysterectomy. A year later, she had a blood clot. Most of her operations took place in hospitals in the Midwest so Steve Number Two could accompany her. She called me from the hospital to apologize for missing my 11th birthday. “I’m sick,” she said. But I refused to listen to her. The illnesses seemed fake, just another excuse to spend time with a man who would give her love.

When Mom returned to Florida, she gave us the option to stay with my father. “You’ll miss your mommy,” she said. I did. I missed the affection and warmth, but that was long gone. I wanted to make her life as miserable and lonely as she had made mine. I’d rather stay with Dad, even if I found him distant, and it meant that I had to share a garage with three dogs for a bedroom.

I had no control over my life, so I created things to control. I became a germaphobe, dipping my posters, DVDs, and books in a bucket of Mr. Clean. My hands bled because I washed them too much. But I didn’t care. I wanted my parents to see the clean world I created. I wanted my mom to hate me.

But she didn’t. She made an effort to spend time with us. She started showing up to Dad’s house uninvited for dinner. She would come in my room, sit on my bed, and look at me without saying anything important. One night, she came into my garage in her nightgown. She sat on my bed next to the garage door. Her nightgown hung off her shoulder, revealing the top of her breast, which reminded me of both my years spent feeding and the porno my skater friends showed me a few days earlier. The video gave my friends boners and made me uncomfortable. Why did I remember my mom’s boob? Why did I hate Playboy.com? I later realized this was because I was gay and wanted to fuck my skater boy friends. But I also remembered her milk’s sour taste, and teenage boys should remember nothing about their mom’s breasts.

She spat a lollipop stick on the floor and then removed another one from her purse. I later learned that this was Fentanyl, a powerful painkiller in lozenge form that one of her doctors had prescribed to treat her chronic and mysterious ailments.

“Why are you always sucking on those?” I asked.

“Mommy’s very ill, you know.”

Somewhere between Mom’s marriage to Steve Number Two and the beginning of ninth grade, her behavior became terribly erratic. For instance, February of my sophomore year, my older brother Tyler drove me to her house a week before my entire family flew to New York for a Spice Girls reunion concert and the Westminster Dog Show. My parents liked to vacation together to make us “feel normal.” It didn’t work.

Mom rushed across the lawn in her nightgown, sucking a lollipop. “Get in the van,” she whispered. We followed her to the 15-passenger vehicle parked in front of the garage. She sat in the front seat. My brother and I sat in the back. He doesn’t remember this, and my mom denies that it ever happened, but I can picture it clearly.

“I can’t yell at you in front of the neighbors, and your siblings are in the house,” she said. Then: “You know, you’re a terrible child, Mitchell.”

“I’m terrible?”

“You didn’t buy me Spice Girls tickets!” she screamed. “You get to see the Spice Girls, and I don’t.” I had asked her if she wanted to go months ago, and she had declined.

“Well, I want to see Baby Spice now!”

I jumped out of the car. She followed me, screaming that I wanted attention and was going to wake my siblings up.

“Why do you have to be a drama queen?” she asked me.

“Maybe because you’re a fucking junkie who’s ruining our lives!”

She sucked on her lollipop. “I’m not a drug addict. I love you. Why would you think that?”

She wasn’t a junkie, but I wanted to hurt her. I wanted her to realize that she was acting like Britney Spears circa 2007, but I also felt terrible for making my mother feel so bad. Is it really her fault if a doctor gave her medicine intended for cancer patients even though she didn’t have cancer?

After the Spice Girls trip, my mom moved to Jacksonville to open another pet store. I thought her absence would relieve my anger. Where I once begged God for some kind of craziness to single me out, I now prayed that her stay in Jacksonville would last forever.

Even eight hours away, our relationship haunted me. When I picked up a book for class, my heart raced. I had to listen to Hole’s “I Think That I Would Die,” a song Courtney Love reportedly wrote about her inability to breastfeed her daughter, before I started my homework. Running around my room, bouncing a ball and screaming the lyrics, gave me a release and made me feel like I could, eventually, control everything that happened to me. (After all, it was songs like these that allowed Courtney to create a more glamorous image of her uncontrollable life.)

I needed more than a classic rock album. One day, listening to my English teacher talk about a book I never finished (sorry, Mrs. Rovere), I hallucinated glass breaking in front of me. My head ached. I broke down crying after class. Mrs. Rovere called the guidance counselor, who told my parents I had to seek counseling.

Eventually, my parents agreed to send me to therapy. Predictably the therapist routed all my problems back to my mother. During a group session, I told Mom how I felt. I repeated what I had already said, I accused her of being promiscuous and a drug addict, and I told her the years of breastfeeding made me feel weird. She accused my therapist of manipulating her son.

On the way home to my dad’s house, she asked me, “Is there anything you want, Mitchell? We could stop at the mall.” Right then, I realized that she never wanted to hurt me. She didn’t know how to apologize. She could only offer love and apologies in money and milk, as she always did. In her own way she acknowledged that she fucked up. I promised myself I would never yell at her again (a promise I didn’t keep). She loved her children more than anything. She worked her entire life to support me and send me to college. I felt bad for her. But when she tried to hug me as I stepped out of the car, I backed away. I still had the taste of her sour milk in my mouth.

***

On scholarship, I was able to attend Sarah Lawrence College in New York. I saw New York the way Liza Minnelli sings about it, or as an orphan in a young adult novel would dream about it. I saw it as an oasis, a place where I could start over.

A little over a year ago, my brother called me as I was doing homework in Manhattan’s McNally Jackson, an independent bookstore full of the kind of books I wanted to write. “Mom’s trying to adopt a baby,” he said. “We have to stop this. I’m planning an intervention for next week.” I said no. A novelist I admired had recently taken me under her wing as an assistant. Her book release party was the following week, and I had publicity work to finish for her. I wasn’t flying home to discuss babies when something good was finally happening to me. I refused to let my family suck me back into their soap opera.

Which isn’t to say that I no longer thought about our saga. I wrote and talked about our family all the time. Prior to moving, I had only written about my personal life twice. Since the sixth grade, everyone told me my life was weird, but I grew up in Hollywood, Florida. It seemed like every other person worked at a strip club or for a drug cartel. Anna Nicole Smith died of an overdose in a hotel room not far from my house. But sitting in a dining hall at college, exchanging stories about my life with virtual strangers who considered a wild night to mean drinking too much beer, I realized that I had stories worth telling.

They come at a cost. I’m rarely happy and battle anxiety on a daily basis. After doctors finally diagnosed my mom correctly, identifying a genetic mutation called MTHFR that can cause depression and blood clots, they tested me for the gene. I tested positive. Mom blames this for my depression, but I think my family life contributed.

I read a Vanity Fair article a few months ago about how Courtney Love regrets the mistakes she made raising her daughter. Reading Courtney’s regrets helped me understand that my mom is always in pain. I recognize that doctors probably over-prescribed medicine to her. I think that my father was a shitty husband. (I would have wanted more than hugs, too.) My mom isn’t a magical creature. She’s a person, a dynamic character who’s had a rough life. I can empathize with that.

Living farther away from her has helped our relationship. Seeing her less means less opportunities for histrionics. I enjoy talking to her on the phone and visit her several times a year. Two months ago we went on a road trip. It was weird at moments—at one point she asked me for dating advice—but I could accept her bizarre behavior and move on. When my brother tells me she took too many Ambien and ate a cake in the bathtub, I still get upset. When she calls me screaming about nothing, I still cry.

Our relationship will never be perfect. But I’ve accepted that it’s possible to get mad at a person and love them at the same time. I wouldn’t wish my family situation on anyone, but I no longer get angry when I think about my past. I have something to write about now. I thank God all the time. ♦

Mitchell Sunderland is going into his third year at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. His work has appeared in Emily Books Quarterly, Huffington Post, Vice, and Thought Catalog.

45 Comments

  • bethleeroth June 26th, 2012 7:44 PM

    Bravo, and lots of hugs. You’re a fantastic writer, keep it up!

  • azultardis June 26th, 2012 8:05 PM

    I get this so much, my mom and I also have a lot of ishues, and I think when I leave the house our relationship could be much healthier

  • jaclyn June 26th, 2012 8:07 PM

    Wow – amazing. I remember reading the Babysitter’s Club, little sister books, and wishing my parents were apart like Karen’s because she got to have two big families. boy i wish I could take that wish back!

    Loved this article

  • havefun June 26th, 2012 8:13 PM

    Wow. This is beautiful.

  • Iris24 June 26th, 2012 8:19 PM

    I’ve never felt so close to a post in Rookie for a long time. I had a strange relationship with my mother too. It wasn’t only about the breastfeeding (which last less longer than in your case), but the whole relation has always been weird. Not what my friend’s families were, or what movies made me dream of. I think she was a mother (a good or not I can’t decide) but at some point (maybe when I was 8 ? 9 ?) she tried to became an older sister or a friend. And that was the end of it. My parents divorced and today I have little to no contact with my mother. I just finished high school and I don’t know if I will forgive her for not being a mom all these years. So, I just wanted to thank you because this article makes me think of it in a new way.
    And sorry for the possible mistakes, I’m French and learning English.
    Thank you again for sharing your experience.

    • bethleeroth June 26th, 2012 11:20 PM

      You’re doing really well with your English. Just wanted to let you know. :) Keep it up!

  • maddy417 June 26th, 2012 8:45 PM

    wow. thank you for sharing this with us. it’s really brave of you to have written about it and you wrote it beautifully.

  • llamalina June 26th, 2012 8:47 PM

    this was amazing.

  • andy June 26th, 2012 8:59 PM

    someone next to me was singing spice girls right when I read about it. COINCIDENCE?

    another honest piece from rookie. lovelovelove.

  • Ben June 26th, 2012 9:06 PM

    Wow, that’s a very interesting story. I feel happy that my family isn’t like that. She kind of reminds me of my Aunt.

  • Dylan June 26th, 2012 9:26 PM

    This piece is really good.

  • Tiger June 26th, 2012 9:48 PM

    This was really amazing, almost haunting? Completely rookie-ish though. Good job:)

  • Sonja June 26th, 2012 10:01 PM

    amazing piece

  • Ellie June 26th, 2012 10:13 PM

    This was brilliant.

  • steph.anie11 June 27th, 2012 12:07 AM

    what an amazing thing to share. i hope you continue to do so.

  • Annabelle June 27th, 2012 12:31 AM

    Beautifully honest!

  • Mitchell June 27th, 2012 1:23 AM

    Thanks everyone! Everyone should talk about their issues with their Mom. It makes it better for everyone.

  • maddzwx June 27th, 2012 1:52 AM

    Wow. I really loved this piece. Definitely going to go read more of your writing.

  • Imogen_Miss_Tutu June 27th, 2012 1:53 AM

    I tried making my mom’s life a living hell ’cause I went through the same kind of situations. I feel so abandoned and alone. Finally, I discovered that I’m not the only one feeling like this.

  • Jenny June 27th, 2012 2:32 AM

    I love this so much. The writing, the story, the yearning yearning yearning to love and be loved but not EXCESSIVELY so is so familiar to me. And I had the exact same experience with my grandmother… who tried to get me to believe SHE could and HAD breastfed me as a child! Gawd. Thanks for writing this <3

  • Ayla June 27th, 2012 6:43 AM

    My mother is full fledged bipolar and she moved away in my early teen years.
    Now she desperately craves a relationship with me and I cant see any other way than to maintain what she sees as a mother daughter relationship.
    It’s exhausting but I know there’s no one out there that loves me more or as unconditionally as she does.

    She always tells me: “I’ll love you through everything! All the drugs, sex and rock and roll”
    <3

  • MinaM8 June 27th, 2012 7:40 AM

    This is amazing to read and think about… You’re a very talented writer.

  • Gorda June 27th, 2012 9:03 AM

    I feel for you. Believe me. Growing up and distancing has really strengthened my relationship with my mother, as well, and just like you she still can make me cry. Thank you so much for sharing this story (and so beautifully). It really moved me, we never really accept our parents as people who can be, or have the right to, be flawed, do we?

  • darksideoftherainbow June 27th, 2012 9:23 AM

    this post really pulled me in. it’s really wonderful and it makes me glad that you recognize your talent for writing and are pursuing it. i look forward to reading more from you!

    also, “But I’ve accepted that it’s possible to get mad at a person and love them at the same time” is so true and really perfect.

    thanks for the excellent post!

  • June 27th, 2012 9:35 AM

    This is really beautiful, thank you for sharing it with us
    http://thelunalovingbookworm.tumblr.com/

  • Abby June 27th, 2012 12:38 PM

    Wow. Thank you for being so brave in your life, and so brave as to share this.

  • Jennifred June 27th, 2012 1:04 PM

    Beautifully written!

  • GlitterKitty June 27th, 2012 3:03 PM

    This is great. Thanks for writing such an honest piece.

  • hannahsophia June 27th, 2012 4:16 PM

    This is written so well. <3 I have a crazy mom too, but I can't seem to fix my relationship with her. There was a lot of abuse in our home, both physical and emotional. I can't seem to get over that. I don't live with her because I don't know how to handle her. She is now pregnant with her new husband at the age of 44 because she's crazy. But my whole life is kind of crazy. You just have to keep moving forward:)

  • TheGreatandPowerfulRandini June 27th, 2012 6:43 PM

    This is truly an amazing piece.

  • meels June 27th, 2012 6:58 PM

    how brilliantly written!

  • DianaA June 27th, 2012 7:05 PM

    Riveting! I hope it’s as cathartic for you as it sounds. Awesome writing, as always. Keep it going…

  • soretudaaa June 27th, 2012 7:05 PM

    Wow. This was actually really touching. Thank you.

  • sherbert June 28th, 2012 1:35 AM

    yo, i don’t know…

  • ScienceTeacher June 28th, 2012 2:10 PM

    As your teacher, it was hard to watch you and your siblings go through this. You were very closed and distant; you always made everything seem okay on the outside. I’m so glad you found your voice. There are always people out there who love and admire you, even if we don’t say it. I’m very proud of you and can’t wait to continue reading your story.

    • Mitchell June 28th, 2012 6:07 PM

      Thank you so much! I really appreciate this. I’m glad to know this now. I was pretty much miserable my entire time at Heritage. Out of curiosity, who is this? I had so many math and science teachers at Heritage. If you don’t want to say it here, please email me. Msunderland@gm.Slc.edu Thanks!!!

  • overplayed June 28th, 2012 3:47 PM

    I signed up to this site just to comment on this piece. i needed to read this. my own mother is very similar and it sucks to love and hate someone simultaneously more than words can describe. mostly love, though. all we can do is love them.

  • alex_n_stuff June 29th, 2012 12:19 AM

    I think the word I can use best to describe this article is thoughtful. For someone who was always so torn up, I’m really proud that you’ve been able to piece things together and figure yourself out so well. It’s really inspiring. Keep it up!

  • allier July 2nd, 2012 9:36 PM

    I have a very similar relationship with my dad, and this article has been very inspiring to me. He, too, doesn’t understand how to apologize and instead offers me lavish things (trips to hawaii and limos and jewelry) that he obviously couldn’t afford in the least, hoping that the idea of these things would make me forgive him. However, I’ve realized that my relationship with my dad is too far gone to ever be better. I don’t love or hate or want to hurt him anymore; now, I just feel indifferent, like he’s an adult I met once at a family reunion who smelled like smoke and drank too much. Thank you for this post. It’s really great to know I’m not alone in the sucky parent department :)

  • Hedwig July 7th, 2012 12:04 AM

    This is how I want to be able to think/write about my family someday. Clearly. What a coincidence that I needed this tonight and I read it….Oh wait, this article had a 50% of catching me on a night like tonight.

  • kylikki July 26th, 2012 5:28 PM

    This was so touching to read. I have a similar relationship with my mom. We used to be best friends, but 1 year ago they bought a new flat where I didnt have a room. Since that I’m battling anxiety and panic, and blaming her for it. But this made me realize that maybe I should just forgive her.

  • virginiarw July 27th, 2012 1:16 PM

    Wow! Most people don’t know about MTHFR. I’m so glad you and your mom found out about it. How are you treating it? I test positive for both of the gene mutations.

    You are a great writer. I have some similar things with my mother. A lot of divorce and health problems and depression. And it sucks being the middle child.

    I had ADHD as a kid, but now I really think it was autism along, which is linked to MTHFR.

  • waverlyann September 4th, 2012 8:20 PM

    wonderful way of writing, i really enjoyed reading it :-) keep it up!

  • mery September 25th, 2012 9:03 AM

    This is a great piece of writing. Sometimes getting away from home is the only way to keep your family relationships sane. Sad, but true.